Angel in West Memphis

It was a cold, rainy night in November, just a few days before Thanksgiving in 2010. I was working in Memphis on an interim appointment, while Hollianne and the kids stayed at our home in Martin. I usually spent Monday-Thursday in Memphis, traveling back to Martin for long weekends.

I left the office around 8:30 p.m. and remembered that I needed a couple of items for my apartment. It was dark, and I recall a real chill in the air that night as I walked to my truck. The rain intensified as I drove to the West Memphis (AR) Wal-Mart. The Hernando Desoto bridge was so covered in thick fog that I struggled to see the cars in front of me. I was miserable. It had been a long day, I missed my family, and the weather was unbearable.

The parking lot of the Wal-Mart was approximately 25% full and I was grateful to find a parking spot near the front door. I wasn’t surprised…as no one wanted to be out in this weather.

As I walked toward the entrance I had the feeling that someone was following me. I looked over my shoulder and saw that someone was…a heavy-set man in a grey hooded sweatshirt and khaki pants. We made eye contact and then he quickly darted out of sight behind a line of parked cars. I didn’t give it much thought.

I put this sight out of my mind as I entered the store. WIthin 10 minutes I had made my purchases and was walking back out to the parking lot. It was there that I saw him again. Grey sweatshirt, khaki pants, thick glasses that framed his face. He looked like 10,000 people that I’d seen that month. Just a normal guy. Like me.

I said “good evening” as we approached one another. He said something in response and kept walking toward the store. As we passed in the parking lot I noticed that he was soaking wet and had about two days of stubble on his face. His wet hair was plastered on this head beneath the hood of his sweatshirt. He didn’t make eye contact when I spoke.

I walked on to my truck and started the engine. I turned on the wipers and defroster to try and clear my windshield. I became distracted while waiting for my truck to warm up and started a quick text message to Hollianne before leaving the parking lot. Suddenly I felt a presence and I looked up….and saw the man standing right in front of my truck. His eyes were lit up from the reflection of my headlights into his glasses. Startled, I wondered what I should do. He didn’t move once I looked up…he wanted to talk.

“I’m not wanting to hurt you….please let me talk with you,” he shouted over my running engine.

I didn’t know what to do. He walked over to my window and asked me to listen to him. My first impluse was to drive away. He was no longer in front of me and I could have just pulled away from him. Something held me there. While nervous, I wasn’t afraid. I decided to talk with him.

His name was Carl. He lived in Florida and had been traveling to visit family in Missouri when his car broke down in West Memphis. He was stranded there for several days as he waited for someone, anyone in Florida to send him some money to have his car repaired. His car was at Sunrise Pontiac….just a few miles away in Memphis. He had a job- but explained that he was living paycheck to paycheck after a divorce and had no savings or emergency fund to help with his car repair. He had spoken to his boss and knew that his job was safe, but that he would not get paid for the days of work he was missing. He hoped to have some money wired to him tomorrow and be back on the road to Florida by the late afternoon.

That’s when I saw her. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a young girl who couldn’t have been much older than my daughter, Carson. I turned to look at her and he explained that she was his daughter. She was traveling with him. She was cold, shivering- and wouldn’t look at either of us while we were talking. She had a blank stare and was focusing on the falling rain that was steadily pounding the parking lot.

I remember asking what he needed. He told me that he barely had enough money for a room in a nearby motel. He also said that he planned on being able to pay for his car repair with some money that would arrive tomorrow. They simply needed food. They were hungry. He then told me that his name was Carl.

Tears poured down his face as he explained that he had never asked for assistance like this. He and his daughter were proud people, but this one piece of bad luck had a domino effect on their lives over the past two days. They had temporary shelter, but needed food. He was obviously troubled by being reduced to begging in a parking lot.

He explained that they had been in the parking lot for the past 6 hours. It took him a while to finally be able to swallow his pride and ask for help. Unfortunately, bad weather and an early sunset made it difficult for him to engage anyone. He said that I was the only person who had made eye contact with him all evening- and he thought he would engage me.

I walked back inside the store with this man and his daughter. She sat down on a bench inside the store near the front entrance. Carl and I walked through the grocery section. I wondered how much he would try to get me to buy. I pushed a buggy as we went down the aisles. Peanut butter, jelly, white bread, mustard, plastic forks and knives, canned beans, bananas, apples and bottled water. It was a small load of groceries- and I admit that I was surprised at how little he gathered. I asked Carl if he wanted more food. He told me that this shopping trip would provide them with a good dinner and breakfast in the morning, plus more meals for the ride home. The peanut butter didn’t need to be refrigerated, so they could carry it in their car to minimize their expenses. I was ashamed for thinking otherwise.

As we walked to the checkout I asked Carl if he needed any money for gas. He told me that he had 1/2 a tank, but that he thought he might be able to make it home with the small amount he’d have left over after his money arrived tomorrow. Hopefully. Perhaps. He didn’t know.

I decided to buy him a gas card. Carl didn’t see it until the cashier rang it up. He started to object but quickly caught his own words and said “thank you.”

We walked out into the parking lot and joined his daughter near the entrance. She was smiling now, and for the first time she made eye contact with me. Carl collected the two small bags out of the cart and handed them to his daughter. He then asked me for my address so he could send me some money for the groceries once “he got out of this hole.” I told him that it was my pleasure to help in some small way, and wished him well on the rest of his journey. He asked me for my address one last time- and when I again refused- he simply thanked me and walked away. They were talking like any father and daughter might do…excited about their food and for a slight “break” in their run of bad luck.

I watched Carl and his daughter walk toward a bank of nameless motels near the parking lot. I stood and watched them until the darkness reduced them to a couple of shadows in the distance. I turned and walked to my truck, still processing what had just happened.

Once I cranked my truck I started shaking. I was overwhelmed with emotion and sadness. What if that were me? What if that were my daughter? What a tough journey this family had been through over the past two days…and I couldn’t imagine what was still in store as they awaited the loan and would try to make it home.

Why didn’t I do more? Why didn’t I offer to cover their motel bill? Couldn’t I have helped with their car repair? I had simply done what Carl had asked. He needed food- nothing more. It had happend so quickly that I really didn’t have time to process what was happening- or how else I could help.

I needed to find Carl. I wanted to check on him and his daughter. I drove the street in front of the store and couldn’t find them. It was raining harder now, and I was certain that they had made their way into their (hopefully) dry, warm room. But which hotel? How could I find them? I didn’t even have a last name.

I hit my steering wheel out of frustration. Why hadn’t I asked more questions? What else could I have done? I knew that friends from church and work would have helped this man pay for his car repair. I had missed an opportunity.

My encounter with Carl stayed with me through the Thanksgiving holiday. I wondered how Carl and his daughter got home. I thought about his Thanksgiving day. Would there be a happy gathering with family, or would he be back at work- trying desperately to repay his loan for the car repair? I thought about him often…as the days between Thanksgiving and the Christmas holiday are filled with happy times for most people, but I anticipated heartache and struggles for Carl and his daughter. I thought about them most when I would leave the office at night. As the air got colder and the days grew shorter, my mind would drift back to our encounter in the parking lot.

Hebrews 13:1-3 reads “Keep on loving each other as brothers. Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering (ESV).” I thought about this passage often over the next several months. While I won’t suggest that Carl and his daughter were angels, I do think that this experience taught me that I need to be more aware of those in need and try to help when the opportunity arises.

I failed in this case, but the lesson was not lost on me. I pray that I am mature and aware enough to respond as I should the next time a “Carl” crosses my path.

God bless you, Carl- wherever you are.

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